Pseudonymous new writer Robert Rivers appears in the Department of First Stories of EQMM’s current issue, September/October 2017. By day the Bostonian works for a Danish company that makes health-care products, making time to write in the early morning and on weekends. He earned an MFA from the writing program at Pine Manor College that was founded by Dennis Lehane, and he is well read in the field of crime fiction. His debut story, “Femme Fatale,” could be classified as “noir” fiction, and in this post he offers his thoughts on the defining qualities of that category. He tells EQMM he is currently working on a collection of stories. —Janet Hutchings
Otto Penzler and James Ellroy provide detailed and enlightening definitions of noir in the first pages of the book Best American Noir of the Century. In a nutshell, noir (the word for black in French) features dark tales of soulless individuals who inhabit and live outside the boundaries of society and the law, and are doomed to failure in the pursuit of their heists, frauds, scams, cons, scores, hunches—and above all their hopeless, unrealistic dreams. There is usually a femme fatale, some tough criminals, a cop or private eye, an urban setting, lots of dark places: alleys, bars, seedy hotels and nightclubs. Ellroy’s description of the noir world and its women, who have “the unique power to seduce and destroy,” is particularly enticing. He writes, “A six-week chronology from first kiss to gas chamber is common in noir.” Gotta love that one.
In Manhattan Noir, Lawrence Block gives noir a broader perspective, noting that noir is more “a way of looking at the world.” Hmmm. I’m more comfortable, as a writer, with that definition as far as my own work is concerned. I hate to think the characters I write about are hopeless and doomed forever, even if they are. I want to think they have a chance, however dismal their situation, and whatever trouble they happen to have put themselves in. . .a chance for change, and the opportunity, however slim, to turn themselves around, to arrive at some kind of redemption.
At some intersection along the road of my writing history, I became attracted to writing about this type of character. These were people living on the edge in some way, emotionally, spiritually, physically. They were sometimes desperate, other times arrogant, but they seemed always to be involved in crime, or on the verge of crime, or having crime lurking just around the corner. In their world the possibility of easy money and the sure thing, was something guaranteed, something owed to them, something they considered their birthright. Breaking the law was nothing to sweat about; it was central to a way of life. The best of them, or worst, depending on whose side you were on, would drag with them, sometimes screaming and kicking, sometimes not, someone not quite as shady as they were (a woman); someone who could put a little light into all the darkness, and make things more human, at least more interesting, and maybe sharpen the conflict.
In my mind, their stories needed to be told. I was, and still am, drawn to these characters, maybe wanting to find out what makes them tick, wanting to share in their excitement, wanting to get to know them better.
Of course there is much more to a story in the larger sense than just characters (setting, plot, tone, for instance), but if we can stay with the idea of character for a moment, the question then becomes why are some drawn to noir characters instead of more mainstream characters?
The writer James Dickey once advised, “If your life gets boring, risk it!” Risking it implies putting yourself out of your element, out of your comfort zone; that is, putting yourself at risk, to get the adrenaline flowing, as an antidote for boredom. But how many of us are willing or capable of doing that? Not many, I think. Maybe that’s why we read fiction in general and noir in particular, and why writers write it. The characters in the story always put themselves at risk! It’s their nature. One risk follows another. They make a habit of living on the edge.
And this character I’m talking about, at least the one I prefer, often has inner conflicts. Should she steal those diamonds, or not? She’s tempted. There they are. All she has to do is pick them up, stash them in her purse. Should this guy switch the dice at the craps table, for the loaded dice he’s palming? The table is there for the taking. The dealers will never catch it. After all, this guy’s a pro, he’s polished this act for years, he could do it in his sleep. Why would he hesitate?
That is to say, I like to think some characters, the better ones perhaps, have several competing selves within. The Moll says, “Honey, just be yourself.” The Mack says, “Which one?”
In the broader sense, I think of noir as a spectrum of shades, maybe going from very dark (the Penzler/Ellroy version) to shades of gray. At any rate, from one end to the other and all points in between, a reader can pick her/his poison among the huge and welcome variety that can be found in the landscape of noir fiction.
As a writer trying to get the story of these characters down on paper, I picture myself somewhere in the background, typing away on my laptop, recording the story, in the same way an observer might, which is probably a good spot for me to be in considering Elmore Leonard’s advice to an author: Don’t get in the way of the story. Since I’m not a criminal, I can only watch what these characters do, and take notes, and speculate as to their motives. Another reason to write about them: it’s fun. I learn about these people as I go along. I get interested in their backgrounds. Where did they come from? What made them the people they are? It’s a process of discovery.
Michelangelo said he was simply freeing the sculpture that already existed within the huge block of fresh cut, dusty marble. I think of that image of the hard working sculptor, hammer in hand, as parallel to the image of a writer in the creation of a story—getting the story to emerge out of whatever substance stories are carved.
In the current issue of EQMM, in my story “Femme Fatale,” I tried to follow the characters where they seemed to be heading, like a reporter trying to catch up with someone he thinks he knows. But do I really know them? I think I’m trying to. Does the reader know them better? That could be the goal, I think.
A friend of mine, on hearing the title of the story, asked me “Is it noir?” Yes? No? I didn’t know what to say. I suppose it is one of those shades of noir. But I’m not sure which one.
Good thoughts on this, Robert. I, too, am a believer in the shadings. If it weren’t for a few flashes of light along the way, the characters would simply bang into walls endlessly.
I get what the author means with the sculpture analogy. I was up for a time working on a short story for a local contest here in Florida. By the time I gave up the ghost, it looked like random prep phrases and jumbled sentences. I made a few edits the next day, and it wound up one word shy of the word count ceiling. I don’t have a clue if it made any sense to anyone else, or if they even accepted my entry. Great. I’m going to go lie down.